Steve Smith: A Household Name


To most people, Steve Smith might not be a household name. The DC area musician likes to stay in the cut. But even if the name is not on your iPod, the acts whom he’s worked with – Jazmine Sullivan, Raheem DeVaughn, Wayna and Kev Brown to name a few – have surely taken up space on your playlist. However, in 2009, his name will surely be added to your list as well.

Steve grew up in suburban Washington, DC and his early life was heavily influenced by the church. Even though he played drums with the choir, his musical vision was set in motion when he asked his mother to sing in front of church when he was 17.

“I never realized that I could sing, but once I got my chance to get up on stage and was able to do what I wanted to do, it was like a breath of fresh air,” he says. That moment led him to perform with gospel groups in high school such as Soul Food and the Seven Sons of Soul cementing a childhood rooted gospel music. “I like my gospel, but I like my old school gospel,” he says “I like musicians like Walter Hawkins, Mahalia Jackson and The Mighty Clouds of Joy.” His love of the choir continued when Smith went on to college on an American football scholarship, when he found himself dividing his time between the sounds of music and the roar of a crowd at a Saturday afternoon game.

But don’t get it twisted. Steve Smith is not just that gospel dude that your grandmother would force you to listen to on the radio on Sunday mornings. His musical palate spans multiple tastes. ” I was a big R Kelly fan when R Kelly was… R Kelly,” he says, also noting has admiration for such artists as Marvin Gaye and Charlie Wilson. Smith also uses a chat alias of Radiohead, a nod to the English alternative rock band.

After college Smith moved beyond the sounds of gospel. A label disagreement with Seven Sons of Soul was a blessing in disguise. Even though he lost the rights to over 400 of his recordings, the situation allowed Smith to team up with soul crooner Raheem DeVaughn and work with the fellow DC area musican in the studio prior to his debut album, The Love Experience. The first thing that Steve noticed was Raheem’s work ethic: “I think I stayed in the studio with Raheem one time for 4 days straight in the same spot. Working with Raheem later inspired Smith to form Justaband, a collaboration of sound from jazz, to R&B, to Hip Hop.

Justaband is a group of five individuals that each bring a different flavour to the project. “We look at ourselves as a small Motown,” Steve says, “The way we do our music is from inside. Depending on what type of mood the band is in, we encourage them to take off that mood and bring it across into the song.”

The group has made noise on the DC scene, and their seductive sound blends elements of Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, Mint Condition, and Earth Wind and Fire with an emphasis on the crisp, clean perfection of Motown.

Even though the recording process is low key – “we record all of our stuff in the living room,” he admits – the group successfully blends the old and the new, whether is sultry R&B anthem “Keep Pushing,” or the upbeat “Going Back To The City,” the soulful vocals and delightfully low key instrumentals bring about a mood not seen by typical R&B.

But don’t call Smith or Justaband “underground.” He can’t stand that label.

“I don’t feel like music should be placed as “underground” music,” he states. “That just means that it’s buried, you know what I mean? Music is to be heard, and you can’t hear anything underground.”

So true. Unlike many neo-soul artists who stay on that underground level, Steve crafts his work specifically for radio. “In some point I would like to hear myself on the radio. We all would, you know? People want something that they could feel. And I was always like that, even with my gospel stuff.”

Steve wants his music to be inspirational and accessible at the same time. “If somebody is on their way to shoot somebody, [I want them to] hear my song on the radio and decide to go to the club. That’s good enough for me. That’s a life saved, you know what I mean?”

Currently, Steve is working on his solo project, titled In My Mind, titled after the Stevie Wonder record of the same name. Even though he admits that he’s not an “out in the forefront type of person,” the project is already poised to be Smith’s breakout album, with his work being a reflection of day to day life.”

Winston Ford | Photography by Tamar Nussbacher